Generic home appliances are things of the past; today's equipment is sleek, efficient and full of customized features. From temperature-controlled refrigerator compartments to mold- and mildew-resistant filtration features for washers and dryers, appliances have received a significant upgrade in recent years.
"Appliances have become a whole lot more interesting in design, style and functionality in the past five years," says Jill Notini, vice president of communications and marketing at the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers. "I think people will be pleasantly surprised when they get to the store."
Before taking a trip to your nearest supplier, though, some necessary research is required. For starters, look at your current setup and determine a list of the features you absolutely love and what you can live without. Then look at space. "Bigger isn't always better," Jill notes. "Think about what you use. How much space do you really need? If you're an older couple—perhaps whose kids no longer live with you—and you're scaling back, consider purchasing a smaller refrigerator to allow for more cabinet and counter space."
Space doesn't just apply to where the appliance will fit, either. If you're considering a room air conditioner or dehumidifier, you need to get an appliance that will appropriately cool and dehumidify the intended space. "Again, people think bigger is better, but that's not always the case," Jill explains. "A major element is the dehumidification feature. If you purchase an air conditioner that's too big, it will shut off the dehumidifier sooner, making the room cool, clammy and uncomfortable. Make sure to get one that's appropriate for the room size." Use the cooling calculator at cooloff.org to find the proper fit.
Such Internet research is a valuable tool—it gives you access to a larger selection of models, allows you to browse warranties and maintenance manuals and helps you understand operating labels. "Doing some research upfront makes shopping easier," Jill says. "If you're concerned about energy efficiency, understanding the energy guide adhered to the front of the product and what that or the Energy Star label means is helpful. It will also tell you the annual operating cost of unit, so you know initial upfront cost and the lifetime cost to run it."
Another aspect to consider when shopping for kitchen appliances is whether your favorite dishes will work with that item. "If you like to use a certain dish or pan, or have a tray you know needs to fit in your refrigerator because you use it often, bring it with you to make sure it can fit in the range or fridge," Jill suggests. "Some specialty stores may even allow you to bring a dish to cook as a 'try before you buy' to check out how the product functions." Check the manufacturer's web site for more information on these locations.
Once you've narrowed down your choices, make sure you look at all the elements before making your purchase; don't be swayed solely by upfront costs. "People only think of upfront costs, which is short term," Jill says. "You want to think about cost to operate over the lifetime of the product. If you're weighing a decision between a $1,000 item and a $1,500 item, but you may be spending $50 more a year to run the cheaper appliance, you'll quickly come to a figure that exceeds the more expensive product." Another option: Even if you only need one appliance now, consider purchasing another that may be needed in the next couple of years; bulk purchases may equate to discounts, whether from the manufacturer or the store.
Energy Star Solution
It's no secret that Energy Star appliances can help reduce your energy bills. Here's how you can benefit the most from these energy-efficiency all-stars.
- Check out regional incentives for purchasing Energy Star appliances by typing your ZIP code into Energy Star's rebate locator (energystar.gov/index.cfm?fuseaction=rebate.rebate_locator) and selecting the appliances you're interested in.
- Don't plug in an old refrigerator elsewhere in your home; it will still drain as much energy from the basement as the kitchen. Take it off the grid completely by recycling it.
- Energy efficiency also can equate to saving time. High-efficiency washing machines can spin your clothes almost twice as fast as conventional washers, saving time in the dryer because the clothes are already less moist from the more aggressive spin cycle.
Proper maintenance is key to ensuring your appliances endure as long as possible. Here are a few helpful tips to keep your systems in tiptop shape:
- Tackle your oven racks first, followed by an interior wipe-down using inflammable chemicals. Reminder: Before using the self-cleaning feature, remove the oven racks. The high heat may cause the metal to expand, damaging the interior of your oven.
- Save yourself some time by placing detachable stovetop pieces in the dishwasher. Any grease solution should work just fine after that. Tip: Use a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser to get rid of tough-to-remove debris.
- Fill your dishwasher cup with bleach gel, and run it through one cleaning cycle. To get that squeaky-clean shine, pour in 1 cup of vinegar and run it again. Reminder: Don't forget to wipe down the area of the dishwasher where the door meets the bottom of the dishwasher, and check for food remnants.
- Maintain your HVAC system by scheduling a pre-season checkup in the spring and fall, tightening all electrical connections, lubricating all movable parts, cleaning the condensate drain, and inspecting, cleaning or changing the air filters. Reminder: Your HVAC can directly affect your health, so proper maintenance can ensure better air quality in your home.
- Prevent laundry detergent or fabric softener buildup in your washing machine by running a wet towel in the detergent dispenser. Clean out the lint catcher in your dryer as well; without proper airflow, you're not only increasing your electric bill, you're also making your home more susceptible to a fire. Tip: The waxy film on dryer sheets will leave residue on your lint catcher. Take a strong brush and some hot water to get rid of it.